Africa: Dive of a lifetime on Pemba Island

21st January 2011

The island of Pemba, north of Zanzibar, offers some of the best underwater adventures in Africa. Our diving expert Tim Ecott investigates the fish at Fundu Lagoon.

The charm of the diving at Fundu is, in part, that this is not an area where large numbers of divers will visit.

Pemba forms part of the Zanzibar archipelago.

An abandoned lighthouse stands sentinel as our speedboat rounds the south-western tip of Pemba. There is no actual light, but the red and white candy-striped superstructure stands out from the dense green of the casuarina pines that edge the sand with their wispy fronds. Abdullah the skipper points to a patch of surf a few yards from the jagged ironshore protruding above the clear blue Indian Ocean. “Wreck!” he mouths above the thrumming of the twin outboard engines.

The sea is mirror flat. Stretching to the west I know it reaches to the mainland of Africa 40 miles away, but there is nothing to break the pure blue except for a few triangular sails on the horizon. They are simple white hieroglyphs against an azure temple wall signalling the presence of the mashuas, the small dhows used by the fishermen of Pemba. And like our diving boat, the dhows are taking advantage of calm conditions to circumnavigate the southern tip of the island that forms part of the Zanzibar archipelago.

Divers visit this site infrequently; we are already almost an hour’s boat ride from the lodge at Fundu Lagoon where I am staying. The exposed reefs are almost always ripped by strong currents and when the monsoon winds blow, the site is completely inaccessible. Today our group of half a dozen divers will try to dive the wreck of the merchant ship Paraportiani, which foundered on the reef in 1967. Denied safe passage through the Suez Canal by the Arab-Israeli War, the 300ft-long SS Paraportiani lies in less than 60ft of water, her stern still largely intact and her broken superstructure embedded in the sand. Rolling backwards into the water I discover that the calm seas above have disguised a strong northwards current, and I bury my knuckles in the seabed, pulling myself across the sand into the lee of the ship’s hull. The other divers do the same, sheltering inside the coral encrusted metal. The current sweeps the water clean and I can see the entire length of the wreck as if the whole scene is above water, not below.

Hard corals have cloaked the metal, and nestling inside the stumpy fingers of pocillopora I spy a tiny yellow-spotted scorpion fish. This cryptic species somehow bends its frame around the coral and hides deep in its crevices, barely moving in daylight but ready to pounce on any smaller fish that swim too near. On the wheelhouse deck there is a tiger cowrie, its shiny shell as bright as a polished marble floor. In the dark space below deck a wall of copper-coloured sweeper fish share the space with an elegant lionfish, all bristling venomous spines and feathery fins; the reef equivalent of an attack helicopter, highly manoeuvrable and, if you are bite-sized, equally deadly.

In spite of the current, we manage an hour’s dive on the shallow wreck, gradually working our way along the twisted flanks of the ship, peering beneath the mast and passing countless tiny creatures that have made the hulk their home. Red, green, yellow and pink hard corals, a purple magnificent anemone and an orange starfish with raised scarlet knobbles stand out in the sunlit shallows as if they have all been picked out with enamel paints.

Most of the diving on this side of Pemba is closer to Fundu Lagoon than the wreck site. Just 15 minutes from the resort lies Misali Island, a tiny sand-encircled island which is home to sunbirds and flying foxes. There are caves in the interior which are reputedly used for voodoo. With assistance from the World Bank, the Tanzanian Government has designated the western edge of Misali as a conservation zone, in an attempt to preserve the seaward coral reefs. This is the kind of magic I prefer to see. There are half a dozen individual dive sites here, mostly drift dives along the rich coral walls which are filled with a variety of western Indian Ocean species.

My guide is Filbert Ngelenge, a local diving instructor who knows Pemba’s reefs inside out, and jokingly refers to the ocean as “his office”. He came to Fundu Lagoon when the resort opened 10 years ago, having come from an inland village 10 hours’ drive from the capital, Dar es Salaam. His open manner and a willingness to learn new skills attracted the attention of a diving instructor and he was offered the chance to train as a dive leader.

“My family don’t understand my passion,” he explains, “none of them can even swim, and they can’t imagine the marine world. They understand the animals in the bush, not the ocean.” Filbert is fond of nudibranchs, the tiny colourful sea slugs without a shell which divers love to see, but find difficult to spot. On one dive he is fixated by the sight of a Spanish dancer (one of the largest nudibranchs) as it lays a coil of bright pink eggs. They resemble a hair scrunchy, a fine network of tiny cells glued to the coral about 4in wide.

Filbert also knows where to find the leaf fish, small, virtually motionless predators that sit on coral heads and whose flattened bodies look exactly like a leaf swaying in the current. On each dive we vie with one another to spot something small and secretive, camouflaged among the folds of a cabbage coral or tucked inside a sponge. He spies a tiny transparent shrimp decorated with white dots, and, with the help of a cheap magnifying glass that I carry in my pocket, I find a white nudibranch decorated with black spots, both creatures smaller than my little fingernail.

Really big fish are rarer here, perhaps because of local fishing pressure on the reefs. In the deep water beside the reef slope we do see large silver kingfish, some barracuda, giant trevally and an enormous Napoleon wrasse.

The wrasse with its characteristic humped forehead is more than 4ft long, a green giant with preposterous lips that glides into the gloom. Sharks, too, are a rarity here, though they may be more common on the eastern side of Pemba than here, close to the lagoon shallows. But the reef is filled with life, and there are corals hard and soft, barrel sponges and anemones where clown fish guard their eggs protected within a forest of stinging tentacles.

The charm of the diving at Fundu is, in part, that this is not an area where large numbers of divers will visit. Fundu Lagoon has only 18 rooms, a small spa, a pool and a stretch of fantasy white sand that make it feel like its own island within Pemba. The aesthetics are luxurious without losing an African feel, and the staff mainly drawn from nearby villages to which the hotel has contributed funds for building wells, a school and latrines. It is part of a connection fostered by Fundu’s owners, who include London fashion designer Ellis Flyte. “I originally thought that Fundu could be a holiday home,” she tells me. “But that would have been selfish, and would not have built a relationship with the islanders. The whole project is now something so much bigger, and I hope more valuable.”

The guests at Fundu are largely unaware of the community relationships that produce the special atmosphere here. They arrive after a 20-minute transfer by launch from the ramshackle docks at Mkoani, and a half-hour taxi ride from Chake-Chake airport. Getting here is enough of an African adventure for most, and they seem happy to drink by the pool or at the sunset bar set on stilts above the lagoon without pushing themselves into too much strenuous activity. Kayaks are available for exploring the mangroves and hotel staff will take you to visit the villages on foot if you wish.

Walking through fields of cassava, crowds of children followed me, the bravest of them darting up to touch the hand of this mzungu who has come from an unimaginable land.

At sunrise on my last day of diving we set off from the wooden jetty with a full moon still visible in a yellowing amber sky. We head past Misali and over to Uvinje Wall. The wall is still in shadow, delaying the underwater dawn and keeping us in an underwater dream. In the half-light we descend onto an expanse of cabbage coral that covers the leaf slope like some giant mille-feuille pastry. A female hawksbill turtle shies away from our group, abandoning her coral breakfast. In the folds of the cabbage coral I find a black-spotted puffer fish barely awake. It has a face like a pug, with large black eyes and a body of dusty blue. And, like a dog, it has curled its stumpy tail forwards as if to wrap itself against the morning chill.

Divers at Fundu are pampered. Their air tanks are carried, their gear assembled and afterwards it is rinsed and dried ready for the next day. After the early morning immersion we are whisked to Baobab Beach at Misali where wicker hampers contain lunch. There is tabbouleh, watermelon and papaya, fish kebabs and, as if we had room, coconut cake. And there is time, Filbert says, for a siesta on one of the sunloungers on the beach before the next dive.